Thought lost for decades, this romantic melodrama of the Balkan Wars is the second and final collaboration between leading lady Blanche Sweet and director Cecil B. DeMille. The production was marred by personality conflicts, illness and a tragic accidental death but the film itself is a scrumptiously sleazy little slice of hokum.
Prisoner of love.
I love Blanche Sweet and I love Cecil B. DeMille but sometimes your favorite flavors just don’t work well together. The actress and director only collaborated on two films before calling it quits and both went on to enjoy success with other colleagues. But will off-screen antagonism make for some good entertainment on the screen? That’s what we’re going to be looking at today.
By the way, some partnerships work better than others. This was the very first writing collaboration between DeMille and Jeanie Macpherson, who would remain his idea woman and friend until her death in 1946. Because of the Macpherson connection, I was very excited to finally see The Captive. Macpherson/DeMille films are usually nuts in the best way possible and I wanted to see the beginning of this wacky team. (In case it wasn’t obvious already, I am a huge fan of DeMille’s silent films! In fact, this is the eighteenth one I have reviewed on this website.)
I kind of fell down the research rabbit hole on this one and so I ask that you indulge me. I tried to stuff most of the background details at the end of the review so that those of you who prefer to cut to the chase will not have to wade through it. I hope you will give it a shot, though. I unearthed so much behind-the-scenes info and gossip! Juicy stuff!
(By the way, my three main sources for this review are Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood by the late Robert S. Birchard, Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman and the Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille.)
The film is set during the Balkan Wars, a 1912-1913 conflict that deprived Turkey of most of its European holdings. It was Turkey vs. the Balkan states and the one we are concerned with here is Montenegro. (Birthplace of Nero Wolfe! This has nothing to do with anything else but I wanted to mention it.)
We are first introduced to a rich Turkish fellow called Mahmud Hassan, Bey of Karvan (House Peters), who seems to be living a pretty swell life. Then the scene changes and we meet a Montenegrin farming family that consists of Sonia (Blanche Sweet), her kid brother, Milos (Gerald Ward) and her big brother, Marko (Page Peters, no relation to House).
War is declared and Marko heads out to join the army, leaving Sonia in charge of the family farm. He gives her a pistol for defense on his way out. Back in Turkey, Hassan is called to arms as well and spends his last night at home drinking and partying with his friends.
A scouting party led by Hassan turns out to be terrible at scouting as they are spotted by the Montenegrin forces first. Marko is leading the troops and they shoot down the Turkish soldiers in an ambush. Unfortunately, Marko is fatally shot in the process; his last order is to take the surviving enemies prisoner.
(Page Peters did not outlive his character by much. He died in a swimming accident a year after The Captive was released and is possibly the first actor buried in the Hollywood Cemetery. Alas, if this website is correct, it seems that his grave remains unmarked to this day.)
Back at the village Sonia receives word that her brother has been killed. Sweet plays the scene with great sensitivity, not giving way to hysterics or arm-flailing. Her numb, shocked expression is far more effective than emoting would have been. She is in mourning but also must think of the future and how to care for the farm and Milos alone.
Many Montenegrin women are in Sonia’s position—they need muscle to help them with their farms while their fathers, husbands and brothers are off to war. As the Montenegrin government has taken a number of Turkish men prisoner, it seems logical to use them as farm laborers. The POWs are to be distributed one to a customer. From the reaction of the Montenegrin women, it is clear that the soldiers’ duties will include more than just weeding the cabbage patch and carrying water. (Nudge nudge, wink wink.)
Sonia wants no part of the deal but quickly realizes that she needs help if she is to get her harvest in and so she goes to town to claim her POW. She’s the only one with honorable intentions and (wouldn’t you know it?) she’s the one who ends up with Hassan, the handsomest prisoner in the bunch. (Another village woman already tried to trade her less-attractive acquisition in for him.)
Hassan finds it all very funny until Sonia pulls a gun on him. That does tend to make things rather more serious. He gives his word not to escape and is given relative freedom around the farm. Little Milos instantly takes a liking to the newcomer and Hassan soon grows fond of the kid as well. They become partners in crime, hiding their mischief from the watchful eye of Sonia.
Sonia, meanwhile, is annoyed by Hassan’s antics and keeps him in line with her pistol and a bullwhip. (Oh my!) She’s starting to like him (this is a Hollywood movie, after all) but she hides her feelings under a stern exterior. And that’s why Sonia completely loses her temper when she sees Hassan talking to the most forward woman in the village. It all ends in whiplashes and tears and with Hassan and Sonia barely on speaking terms. Well, what can you expect from such a twisted relationship, I ask you?
Relations thaw again when Sonia mends Hassan’s jacket but it’s all terribly awkward. And then the Turkish soldiers attack the village. Throughout the film, little Milos has been carrying around what seems to be the most patient little goat in the history of ever. Look at that cute lil’ thing!
Well, the Turkish troops grab the poor goat by its back legs and declare they will eat it, the fiends. Milos runs out to save his pet and Sonia runs out to save Milos. Things start to get very nasty when Hassan shows up. He saves the goat first (this man knows his priorities) and then Milos. Sonia is being harassed by the commanding officer, an old friend of Hassan’s, who would be more menacing if he weren’t wearing a Keystone-style fake mustache.
Hassan has to choose sides and he chooses Sonia. The commanding officer is thrown out and Sonia and Hassan hunker down for the siege. The Turkish soldiers fire inside the house from the windows and try to beat down the door with their rifles. (It is here that an extra was accidentally shot. Details to follow.) Sonia and Hassan give as good as they get and she saves his life when she shoots soldiers about to fire into his back.
The cavalry arrives in time but not before Hassan’s friend shoots him for old time’s sake. As he collapses, Sonia takes him in her arms and tells him that she loves him. (Spoilers for the rest of the paragraph.) But then he’s better in the very next scene! That seems a bit anticlimactic. Then the war ends and the POWs are released. Hassan proposes but Sonia is worried about their different stations and turns him down. But conveniently enough, that awful Turkish officer brought charges against Hassan and stripped him of everything he owned. Now equally poor, Hassan, Sonia, Milos and the goat are reunited.
Whew! I don’t know about anyone else but I am fairly exhausted from that little five-reeler. Simply put, I loved it! Absolutely worth the wait! Lots and lots to discuss. Let’s start with the story by Macpherson and DeMille.
This kind of thing was called hokum during the silent era and we have a perfect example here. It’s a little corny, a little trashy and a little zany, resulting in an intoxicating brew if you leave your inhibitions at the door. Think of it as more of a Son of the Sheik picture (which wore its hokum on its sleeve) than an attempt at a serious war picture. The story’s sly wink is helped along considerably by the cast, most of whom seem to be in on the joke. Macpherson’s influence is already being heard loud and clear and I couldn’t be happier.
I should mention that one problem with discussing Jeanie Macpherson’s remarkable career is that people invariably want to fixate on her relationship with DeMille and I don’t mean their longstanding screenwriting collaboration. To briefly sum it all up, Cecil and Constance DeMille were a happy couple but she nearly died giving birth to their daughter, Cecilia. Afraid that another pregnancy would be fatal, Constance gave DeMille permission to keep other company while she remained his wife in every other respect. Macpherson was almost certainly one of DeMille’s extramarital companions. This arrangement was extremely common at the time and I am not really in the mood to debate its particulars. I’m here to talk about silent film, not the bizarre crusade against safe birth control that was raging at the time or the double standard view of adultery. I am certainly not here to dismiss the career of a talented woman and write her off as “just” a mistress.
As screenwriters, DeMille and Macpherson were ideally suited. Both had an unabashed and self-aware love of trash, enjoyed including heavy and unorthodox religious themes and were known to unleash massive doses of quirkiness. Later, DeMille dismissed her contributions to his work and claimed she was just an idea generator but it is clear that his output suffered without her after her death in 1946. (I go into more detail in my review of Unconquered, the DeMille film that was in production when Macpherson died.)
(I will be discussing the film’s ending here so please skip ahead if you want to avoid spoilers.) The rushed happy ending of The Captive leads me to wonder if perhaps a more tragic end was originally intended. Basically, Hassan is shot in the back during the battle at the cottage but in the very next scene, he has returned to health. His proposal to Sonya, her refusal, his return to Turkey, her changing fortunes, his banishment and their reunion are all crammed into the final seven or eight minutes of the picture. I wonder if an early draft of the script called for Hassan to die from his injuries? If so, The Captive would have closely resembled a story DeMille wrote when he was nine years old. The odd spelling is his.
Okay, first of all, that is the cutest thing ever. But you do see the parallels behind the spelling errors, yes? By the way, DeMille’s spelling never improved much and as Macpherson was said to have appalling punctuation… In Hollywood When Silents Were Golden, Evelyn F. Scott (daughter of fellow DeMille screenwriter Beulah Marie Dix) writes:
“Mother respected Jeanie, except in one area. Jeanie couldn’t punctuate. Bertram Millhauser, with whom Mother was teamed in writing some de Mille pictures, claimed that after the titles for a picture had been worked out, Jeanie stood across the room and threw periods and commas at them as if at dart boards.”
Between his spelling and her punctuation, one wonders how the performers managed to decipher Macpherson/DeMille screenplays.
DeMille loved his remakes and he would dust off the plot of The Captive a decade later and produce a sorta remake called Her Man o’ War set during the First World War, directed by Frank Urson (who drowned two years after the picture was released) and starring William Boyd and Jetta Goudal and a ginormous hat. It looks to be even saucier than the original but the only version that seems to be available is blurry and choppy and missing large chunks.
Now, The Captive… Oh my! The film is gorgeous! It has that moody 1910s cinematography, all shadows and silhouettes and light streaming through things. Alvin Wyckoff once again proves himself to be one of the finest cameramen of the decade and it is his contribution that makes the film such a looker. The set design and costuming also have a nice layer of grit to them, you believe that these people really do live out in the middle of nowhere.
The sets and costumes were reused from DeMille’s previous Montenegrin film, The Unafraid, which starred House Peters and Rita Jolivet. It was kind of a Sheik plot with an heiress named Delight (!) being forced to marry a roguish Montenegrin. In fan magazines, Blanche Sweet claimed that she bought her costume off a genuine Montenegrin woman. Whether such people were common in California in 1915, I cannot say. I do, however, appreciate that the outfit matches its surroundings in shabbiness.
DeMille’s first picture had been released in February of 1914 but he had only been directing solo for about six months when he made The Captive. His previous films had been co-directed by Oscar Apfel while he learned the ropes.
By this time, DeMille shows more assurance and better flow but he is still a bit timid and lacks the oomph that would characterize his later pictures. It’s not that his direction in this film is bad, it’s just that he doesn’t seem to know how to take the picture to the next level. By the end of 1915, he solved that quandary and released a trio of genuine corkers: The Cheat, Carmen and The Golden Chance. (All of them are on DVD, by the way. See them at once!) The Golden Chance in particular benefits from the Wyckoff touch. If you think dramatic lighting is the sole property of the Europeans, prepare for a shocker.
One aspect of DeMille’s direction is up to snuff, though: his handling of the cast.
DeMille regulars Theodore Roberts and Raymond Hatton are present, as is a thirteen-year-old Marjorie Daw as one of the Montenegrin peasants. However, the biggest draw is seeing Blanche Sweet at the height of her fame.
In preparation for this review, I rewatched Sweet’s two feature-length starring performances in Griffith films, The Avenging Conscience and Judith of Bethulia. (Sweet’s first performance for DeMille, The Warrens of Virginia, is not available. In later years, she loudly declared that she wished it would burn.) I can say with confidence that Sweet gives a superior performance in The Captive when unshackled from Griffith’s bizarre notions of fluttering, fragile femininity. While The Avenging Conscience has her ridiculously cooing and pecking at a portrait of Henry B. Walthall and Judith of Bethulia has her go to pieces when she has to decapitate him, the heroine of The Captive is cool and confident.
Sweet convincingly plays a tough cookie who is trying her best to hide her softer side. She strides around, owning her scenes but she melts for her kid brother. These scenes are the riskiest but they do not fall into the trap of tweeness and are instead rather charming. Reviews published at the time had nothing but praise for her skill and they are correct. Sweet is natural, attractive and appealing.
Gerald Ward does equally excellent work as Milos. There has always been a tendency for filmmakers to exaggerate the natural cuteness of children and turn them into affected, simpering and annoying creatures. DeMille sensibly directs Ward to just be a kid. I mean, you have a little boy hugging a tiny goat, what more do you need to make his scenes adorable?
House Peters seems a bit too smiley considering his predicament. I mean, I realize that this is not meant to be a super serious picture but I could have done with a little bit more tension from the leading man. He has been taken prisoner by a rather annoyed enemy, after all, and that tends to ruin one’s day.
And now we come to the most tragic aspect of The Captive. During the production, an extra was shot and killed in an on-set firearms accident. When people discuss this matter, they tend to quote Blanche Sweet and only Blanche Sweet. Actually, that’s not true. They tend to quote a paraphrase of Blanche Sweet, not what she really said. We’ll discuss this in a bit but in the meantime, we have work to do. In order to properly understand what happened, we will need to set the stage.
It must be remembered that Blanche Sweet was not in a good place when she worked for DeMille. She had been unceremoniously replaced by Lillian Gish as leading lady in The Birth of a Nation, the biggest hit of the year. According to Charles Affron’s Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life, the story goes that Gish was used as a stand-in for Sweet during rehearsal and Griffith preferred the way she looked while fending off rape. (Insert snide comment about Griffith’s predilections.)
Sweet believed that it was Jeanie Macpherson, an old friend from the Biograph days, who recommended her to Lasky, which was a real up-and-comer studio at the time. She accepted their offer, all the while hoping that her threat of departure would be a wakeup call for Griffith. “I went to Griffith and told him, and expected him to say ‘No, I need you.’ And he didn’t; he told me to go. I was disappointed and very hurt, because I didn’t want to go.”
When she was interviewed for William M. Drew’s Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen, Sweet spoke wistfully about the Griffith productions that were being made while she was working for Lasky. She visited the Gish sisters on the Intolerance sets and met with Griffith. Sweet stated: “So he showed me around the set of Intolerance, hoping that I was going to say, ‘Oh, I wish I was back here.’”
Frankly, this sounds like wishful thinking on Sweet’s part. She had been shown the door of her first cinematic home and now they were making mega-blockbusters while she was stuck at Lasky with this DeMille person. (Oddly enough a trade magazine remarked that DeMille and Sweet worked together “wonderfully well.” They were either completely clueless or were having a sly dig. Either scenario is quite possible.)
Sweet stated that she did not think DeMille was a very good director, on the whole. She later worked more successfully with his older brother, William, before teaming up with Marshall Neilan, a perfectly brilliant little snot with a flair for whimsy. (By the way, I do not think William de Mille would have taken kindly to Sweet’s remarks about Cecil being inferior to William in every respect. William de Mille remained a protective big brother his entire life and insulting Cecil was one of the few ways to make him lose his temper. In fact, upon reading a positive review for one of his pictures that proclaimed him to be the superior de Mille, he remarked: “I wish they would not use me as a hammer with which to whack Cecil.)
Sweet and DeMille got along far better when they were not sharing a workplace and years later, DeMille told her that he had been terrified of working with an actress of her caliber, one accustomed to the style of D.W. Griffith, whom DeMille admired. The Wikipedia entry for The Captive is a study in unintentional hilarity and its account of this last anecdote is… different. “Sweet felt he was strange, yet DeMille spun the story to make it sound like he was terrified of her.”
Okay, first of all, that sentence is the only strange thing I see. Second, how do they know that DeMille “spun” anything? As a matter of fact, something very similar happened during the filming of The Ten Commandments (1956). DeMille told his granddaughter, Cecilia, that Edward G. Robinson was not giving him the performance he wanted. When she asked him why he did not just tell him what he wanted, DeMille was aghast. “How could I dare say anything to so talented and respected an actor?” That was over forty years after DeMille’s first picture. Imagine how he must have felt in his first year as a director.
In any case, it was clear from the box office returns that DeMille and Sweet were not setting the world on fire as a team. Her first picture with him, The Warrens of Virginia, had grossed $85,000 on a budget of $28,000. In contrast, DeMille’s previous film, The Girl of the Golden West, which starred Mabel Van Buren and House Peters, had grossed $102,000 on a budget of $15,000. The Captive made $56,000 on a $12,000 budget but DeMille’s biggest hit of the year, Carmen, grossed $147,000 on a budget of $23,000 and made a movie star out of famed opera diva Geraldine Farrar.
Her films made a profit but Sweet simply did not seem to have any heft at the box office, not the kind wielded by Farrar and Fannie Ward, anyway. As you can see, a transfer seems to have been in the best interest of all concerned.
So I think I have made a pretty good case for the assertion that Blanche Sweet had a black cloud over her head while making The Captive.
Finally, an important background detail that often gets left out: During the filming of The Captive, either Blanche Sweet or DeMille (both claimed to be the one) discovered Jeanie Macpherson collapsed on the ground. She was taken to the hospital and treated for a condition that was never properly discussed. Scott Eyman mentions influenza or a miscarriage as possibilities. Macpherson later recalled that the first and only time she ever saw DeMille cry was at her bedside when it was not clear whether she would survive.
Okay, so do we have all of the background digested? The stage is set and now we will discuss the tragic accident. Here’s the version found in the current Wikipedia article, the version that has been repeated all over the internet:
“DeMille’s obsession with realism backfired, however, when an extra, Charles Chandler, was shot and killed by a gun used as a prop on set. Later on, Blanche Sweet confessed that DeMille encouraged extras to use real bullets instead of blanks to create more realistic battle scenes.”
The extra is identified as Bob Fleming in Eyman’s book and Charles Chandler in Birchard’s, while DeMille does not identify him by name. What is agreed upon by all is that he was killed instantly.
DeMille’s account of the event (found in his autobiography) is as follows:
“The title of our next picture, The Captive, must always have had a bitter meaning for one man who disappeared from Hollywood while it was being made, for he was a captive, as long as he lived, of a dreadful memory. There was a scene in the picture of a detachment of soldiers storming a heavy locked door. They were to splinter the door with live bullets first, then break it down with the butts of their rifles. Like anyone who knows anything about firearms, I have always been scrupulously careful of guns on the set or anywhere else. I gave orders that the soldiers in the scene were to be sure that their rifles were loaded with blank cartridges when they attacked the door. The firing scene was photographed. I called out a reminder to load with blanks for the attack. A glance told me that the men were unloading their guns. Then the cameraman called my attention away with some question. That settled, we went on to the attack.
The soldiers charged the door, battered it with the butts of their guns. Several of the guns discharged their blanks, as planned—and then I saw an expression of surprise come over the face of one of the soldiers. He faltered, and then I saw a near bullet hole in his forehead, and he fell dead at my feet.
One of the players had neglected to make the change I had ordered from live ammunition to blank. The muzzle of his gun happened to be pointed squarely at the head of another man. And that man was dead. It was pure accident, of course. No examination of the guns could show which one had killed him since several of them had discharged their blanks at the same time. No one ever knew, officially, who had carelessly omitted to unload one of the rifles; but there was one of our soldiers who failed to appear for work at the studio again, whom no one ever saw again in Hollywood. The widow of the man who was killed was kept on the studio payroll for years; but I wonder if her suffering was any greater than that of the man who carried with him to his own grave the memory of having taken, however accidentally, a human life.”
And this is Sweet’s version, as found in Speaking of Silents:
“Cecil was known for what he thought was realism. Well, he got it in The Captive when a man was actually killed. In the film, there was supposed to be a war between Monrovia (sic) and Turkey. The soldiers were pounding on my house in one scene. Cecil had real live ammunition in the rifles, not blanks. When pounding the door, the gun of the fellow playing a Monrovian (sic) soldier went off and blew out the brains of the man in back of him. Of course, at the time, I was quite young and wanted to learn about life and everything. They said, “Don’t come over, don’t come over, it’s terrible.” But I went over. I had to see for myself, and there was this gray matter all on the ground. I’ve never forgiven Cecil for that. But I liked him. I like some of his work.”
Very little difference between the two accounts except for that all-important order to unload the live ammunition and replace it with blanks. Sweet may not have heard the order or she may have been distracted or she may not even have been present for the actual fatal shot as she was not in the exterior door-bashing scenes. In any case, she had little incentive to track down extra details.
I tend to believe DeMille’s account because he was indeed familiar with real firearms and would have known that live ammunition was not something to play with. (I come from a family of hunters and target shooters. While I do not engage in either activity, I am well-acquainted with firearm safety.)
Many versions of this tale claim that DeMille had the guns loaded with live ammunition for realism but it is clear from Sweet’s full quote that the realism she referred to was the man’s death. She does not speculated as to why live ammunition was loaded into the weapons and never contradicts DeMille’s claim that he ordered the blanks to be loaded. Her quote was condensed (“got his realism… live ammunition”) and this is the version that everyone repeats but it is not what Sweet said.
Further, while DeMille did call for risky stunts, they were invariably the sort of thing that would look spectacular on the screen. Gloria Swanson under a lion, Geraldine Farrar being burnt at the stake, Lina Basquette charging through an inferno, that kind of thing. Splintering the door with live rounds? Spectacular. But beating down a door with loaded rifles would not have shown up on the screen and would have been needlessly risky. This is DeMille we’re talking about, not von Stroheim.
It is highly unlikely that any of the footage from the deadly take made it into the picture and I can see no evidence of live ammunition. The scene as it appears in the film unfolds as follows:
The Turkish soldiers line up in front of the door and fire into it. (I am positive that this scene uses blanks because the door is painted a dark color and nothing splinters after it is fired upon at close range.) Two of the soldiers begin to batter the door with the butts of their rifles. Cut to Peters and Sweet inside the house. Cut back to the soldiers, all of whom are now battering the door with their rifle butts. The firefight continues with Sweet and Peters shooting at the Turkish soldiers and the Turkish soldiers firing back. Clearly, the idea of splintering the door with live ammunition was abandoned entirely and the Turkish soldiers neatly line up in a single row, preventing further incidents.
DeMille’s claim that he was distracted and careless and thus failed to notice that an extra did not follow his instructions is also supported by the backstage goings-on. Lasky had his directors working at a breakneck speed and DeMille released thirteen pictures in 1915 (the Lasky company released thirty features total that year). New to the job, rushed by the hectic pace, responsible for nearly half the company’s films and possibly worried about Macpherson? That sounds like more than enough to cause DeMille to look away for a few moments. I believe that both Sweet and DeMille were telling the truth from their perspective, it’s just that you have to look at both accounts to understand what really happened.
In his autobiography, Another Side of Hollywood, House Peters, Jr. wrote about the accident and its aftermath based on the stories his father told him. “Naturally, this left the entire cast and crew in a state of shock. As would be expected, the production was halted for the day. When work on the picture resumed again the next morning, filming was behind schedule. This meant that Mr. DeMille was under pressure to make up for lost time.” As a result, DeMille refused to grant the extras time off to attend the funeral of their late colleague. House Peters announced that he was going to the funeral and since he was in nearly every scene of the picture, they couldn’t shoot without him and so everyone ended up attending. House Peters, Jr. noted that there seemed to be no hard feelings between his father and DeMille afterward.
DeMille made a practice of keeping copies of all his films in his personal vault, only a few pictures from his career are missing. Significantly, The Captive is one of them. It was thought lost for decades before resurfacing in Paramount’s holdings. Clearly traumatized by what she saw, Sweet claimed that she never forgave DeMille for that on-set accident but it seems to me that he never forgave himself.
The Captive is an example of hokum done right. The film has just enough tongue in its cheek to make things fun but is sincere enough to avoid being a gag picture. Macpherson and DeMille clearly understood the underlying kinkiness of their subject and they allow just enough of that understanding to seep through. (If you doubt that DeMille was aware of such things, you clearly haven’t been reading his letters.) It all stays within the bounds of good taste and censor boards, of course, but it’s nice to see that DeMille and Macpherson had connected so weirdly and well this early in their collaboration.
This movie is a kick and a half, ideal for anyone who likes a good crowdpleaser with plenty of eccentricity to keep things interesting. The ending is rushed, sure, but getting there is all the fun and I had a blast watching the thing. If I had to compare it to another silent film, I would say that it is similar to Tempest: an unabashed melodrama with a touch of naughtiness, its heart on its sleeve and a ridiculously talented cast to see it through.
The Captive is quite a find and I am thrilled that it is finally available for all to see. I give it my unreserved recommendation. I suppose I must conclude by agreeing with a contemporary review: “The excellent cast and splendid scenery make it worth while.” Also, enjoy the hokum, kids, I sure did!
Where can I see it?
The Captive was released on DVD and Bluray by Olive Films with an excellent score by Lucy Duke. The transfer does run a bit fast so you may want to experiment with viewing it at 80-90%.